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Needs Soar For Homeless Youth In Bloomington-Normal

Project Oz sign
Project Oz
Project Oz in Bloomington has seen a steep increase in demand for youth homeless services since the start of the pandemic and even since last summer.

More young adults in Bloomington-Normal need shelter now than during the early part of the pandemic.

Project Oz Youth Service Director Cheris Larson said at the start of the pandemic, many vulnerable youth had jobs, but friends stopped letting them couch surf because they feared the virus. Larson said there are now longer term homeless young people.

"I think it just catapulted them from maybe having some instability for a couple nights to being completely unstable for weeks and months on end," said Larson.

Project Oz reports the number of youths in emergency shelter space is up 72%, and the number of nights in shelter has risen 32%.

A young man walks into the door of Project Oz next to a 'safe space' sign.
Credit Project Oz
Project Oz
Domestic and family violence is a key driver of youth homelessness, according to Cheris Larson with Project Oz in Bloomington.

"Now, we're seeing that a lot of young people are unemployed or underemployed and it's not necessarily from lack of trying, but because of the high unemployment rate and the competition among all those who lost jobs during the pandemic," said Larson.

She also said more than half of those in emergency housing now say domestic and relationship violence is a factor in the need. And youth and children in transitional apartments has gone up by 136%.

Parts of the economy have come back from the shutdown days of the pandemic last Spring. Larson said it hasn't affected her clientele.

"We haven't seen it, not with our young people. Seems to be tougher now than it was early on," she said.

In some areas of the state and nation, the pandemic has created difficulty in identifying young people who are without shelter or threatening to not have a place to stay. One estimate puts the national undercount at more than 400,000 young people.

Project Oz said there may be a few who slip through the cracks in McLean County, but likely a smaller portion than in other regions. The agency also networks aggressively with other providers and agencies.

Project Oz Director Lisa Thompson said there is "no wrong door" to access Project Oz youth homeless services.

Larson said Project Oz has improved its web presence during the pandemic, by necessity,with so much happening remotely, and that has also boosted the number of people who have found help through the agency.

The current census showed Project Oz has 30 young people in transitional housing and another four in emergency housing, though the latter category changes daily, said Larson.

She and Thompson said federal CARES Act money allowed Project Oz to expand service to young at-risk people. Larson said that service will likely need to continue, potentially for years, and long after pandemic effects have receded for most people. She said at-risk youth will be among the last to find stability as the economy recovers.

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WGLT Senior Reporter Charlie Schlenker has spent more than three award-winning decades in radio. He lives in Normal with his family.